Oct. 2, 2002
More good news from the Middle East: Germany's public television network ZDF reports there's not just one evil Saddam Hussein. There may be at least three evil look-alikes, plus, of course, the evil original. The look-alikes appear for security reasons or perhaps because Saddam hates missing Angels games. ZDF experts studied 450 recent photos of Saddam, identifying doubles or triples only by tiny details.
In fact, ZDF said, the real Saddam hasn't been filmed since 1998. The other guys are genuine phonies--the Saddam shooting his gun straight up, the Saddam waving a bent arm at unseen crowds, the Saddam standing stiffly in windowless rooms giving pathetic handshakes to lackeys. No wonder he looks insincere; it's the 12th take and he isn't paid that much. Some Saddams were surgically adjusted, ZDF suggested, to more closely resemble the bad guy with the bushy Hitler-like mustache and several mistresses but no gray hair at age 65.
Duplicate Saddams could complicate Bush's Iraq plans. Will we need four regime changes with matching assassination teams? If one Saddam gets nailed, will the others quickly shave and retire? Wouldn't it be easier if the CIA hired its own Saddam? He could tell Larry King he's joined Greenpeace and regrets almost everything--the wars, invasions, oilfield fires, gassings, executions, missiles, everything except the mistresses.
This is priceless material for lovers of conspiracy novels by Robert Ludlum, who reportedly died last year. And imagine doing scheduling for four identical dictators--the days off, the big hats and medals, the different salary withholdings, always having a Saddam handy for rally-waving without another appearing simultaneously across town at the tank races.
Do several Saddams augur other human replicas? Only one Gray Davis and Tony Blair, of course, but might there be two Gerhard Schroeders--one pro- and one anti-U.S.? We've seen several Al Gores speak, a couple of Tom Daschles and, judging by his pre-injury play this fall, at least two Kurt Warners. Are rumors true that Mayor James Hahn's disappearances involve training as a Jackie Mason look-alike? Is the original 99-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond retiring this year or is that Strom Thurmond Version 9.9? Will Osama bin Ladens pop up everywhere now, waving to crowds like all those circus clowns emerging one after the other from the tiny car?
Few recall that the mother of all celebrity look-alike businesses is Elvis Presley. He tired of fame, trained countless clones in Las Vegas and returned to Mississippi to drive trucks and sing in karaoke bars. We all knew there were two President George Bushes. But there's only one likely explanation for how George W. Bush could appear at so many fall fund-raisers in two states on the very same day.
Wish I May, Wish I Might
June 23, 2002
One day many years ago in a valley not far away, Geoff Marcy's parents gave him a used 4-inch telescope. At night he would unlatch his bedroom screen and climb onto the patio roof with his new toy. There, for countless hours, the boy toured the solar system and Milky Way. Marcy recalls feeling very small but strangely connected to something much larger and grander as he studied Saturn's rings, monitored the movements of Jupiter's moons and wondered whether anyone or anything was out there looking back at Granada Hills.
Marcy grew up and defected to Northern California, to a planet called Berkeley. He's taller now but still feels small as he scans the skies with UC Berkeley computers, $5-million spectrometers and telescopes with 33-foot mirrors. Marcy leads one of several global teams quietly collecting intriguing evidence of earthlike planets orbiting stars. While we obsess about really important things such as budgets, secession and soccer and a few things of somewhat less galactic import like songs and thongs, these isolated bands of men and women spend their nights atop mountains imagining what might be in places far away.
Because their work does not involve blowing anything up, these astronomers get little attention. Until the other day, when they announced the discovery of a solar system, 55 Cancri, with planets possibly positioned like ours. This could create the conditions for evolutionary life "just" 41 light-years away.
It took years to find the first such planet. Now, seven years later, Marcy and others have plotted more than 90 planets orbiting stars like our sun; most are like Goldilocks' porridge--too hot, too cold or too hot and then too cold. Because the host stars are so bright, Marcy doesn't actually see these planets; that awaits a new generation of telescopes. He can, however, infer a planet's presence by the minute wobble of its star, as the unseen planet's gravity tugs during orbits. Big tugs equal big planets. Star movements appear as shifting colors in a spectrum as starlight passes through telescopes.
If you think your house is big or your commute long, here on this summer solstice weekend are some numbers the 47-year-old Marcy confronts daily: In 15 years, they've examined 1,200 nearby stars. In our Milky Way, there are about 200 billion stars like our sun. Probably half of those stars harbor orbiting planets. And there are an estimated hundreds of billions of other galaxies like ours. Today's rockets travel 20,000 miles an hour. But light travels 186,000 miles a second. Which means the telltale wobbling starlight recently transiting Marcy's huge telescope left 55 Cancri right about the time the young boy with the little telescope was peering up from that patio roof in Granada Hills.
A Thesaurist Leaves, Exits: Robert L. Chapman has left language lovers a rich legacy through his delightful editing of Roget's
March 3, 2002
Regrettably, unfortunately, lamentably and mournfully, Robert L. Chapman is deceased, demised, departed and dead at 81. The son, boy and male offspring of a West Virginia typewriter mechanic, Chapman once drove trucks, then studied poetry and medieval literature before editing the timeworn, antiquated, irreplaceable Roget's International Thesaurus.
He transformed, altered and caused the transmutation of the stuffy, dull, ill-ventilated compendium of synonyms and antonyms into a hip, cool, with-it collection of words and associations, not only piquing the intellects of language lovers but saving the behinds, fannys and GPAs of countless late-night collegiate essay writers (see also Indolent, Slothful, Procrastinating). With their new shoes, underwear and a Webster's, college-bound juveniles have long packed a Roget's, hoping to sound more educated while getting there.
Before (Slang) cashing in his chips and giving up the ghost, Chapman quietly shaped the way we speak and think of words and idioms as tools to effectively communicate to each other the multi-toned richness of the human experience (see Feeling, Knowledge). You know how people in 19th century photographs posed as if nailed to boards and never smiled? Today's photographers encourage relaxed and open. Same difference for thesaurus editors.
A doctor and Londoner despite his French name, Peter M. Roget produced in 1852 more than a mere alphabetical listing of similar and dissimilar words. He also created categories such as Kindness, Benevolence to suggest enlightening linguistic links likely to be missed by word seekers. The goateed Chapman was engagingly subversive in his academically rooted but pragmatic, populist approach to chronicling and improving how English speakers speak and write. His computers also tracked word usage to update and expand categories and words for new times, inserting AIDS, Scud, hacker, fax, ecosystem, even new dog breeds and slang and modern phobias (i.e. Fear of Flying, not prominent in 1850). Roget's perusers find themselves wandering the distinctive wordways of Chapman's lexicon, encountering new meanings, associations and phrasings through serendipity, an increasingly rare modern commodity and a delicious entry that needs no synonym. As things eventuated, credit goes to Robert Chapman, who has no synonym.
All Decisions, All the Time
Feb. 23, 2002
Thanks a lot, Judge Greene.
He was the well-meaning, earnest fellow who, in 1984, decided the nation couldn't live with one telephone company. His decisions implemented AT&T's breakup but seemed to unleash a cascade of theoretically beneficial competition, confronting millions of innocent Americans with a compounding surfeit of overwhelming daily decisions.
You can now blow an entire Saturday deciding stuff.
We used to have it simple--a number for the phone, Social Security and license plate. We survived on one species of M&Ms and two choices about toilet paper, rolling off the top or the bottom depending on maternal tradition. But now, what phone company for local service? What company for long distance? DSL? Unlisted? Messaging? Forwarding? Call waiting? Line insurance? What Internet company? By the hour or unlimited? Cable TV or satellite? Which satellite? Which movie package? Which news channel--the one with Larry King in suspenders or the one with short skirts? You know going in that no packages compare. Same for cell phones. How to figure if the 7 p.m. minutes plan is better? How many are out of state? Or region? What region? Do you want a vanity auto license? Also, decide right now: If you die on the 101, can some strangers have your organs?
Once, passwords were only for childhood clubhouses. Now, grown-ups need one at work. "Your password expires in four days. Do you want to change it?" Aging minds must choose--numbers, letters, capitals?--how to jumble old passwords to remember new ones without psychiatric care? Same for PINs. Is this ATM worth $2 or wait for the free one near home? $40, $60, $80? Which PIN is it--birthday or anniversary? Need checks? What style?
Movies used to show one film; 17 now playing. At the grocery store, brand name or generic? Grande or venti? How many apple varieties do we really need? Sodium-free crackers? Reduced fat? Even Cheerios require decisions now. And then: Paper or plastic? Lottery ticket? Club member? Four ways to pay. Need help to your car? Gas low? Several grades to pick. Pay inside or out? Credit or cash? Want a receipt? Car wash? Tire treatment? Wax? Need a snack? Is drive-thru always slower than walk-in? Regular or diet? Supersize? What sauce? Here or to go? Cold in the car? What fan speed and where to blow--windshield, mid-level, floor or combo? Same for passenger side? Now, about your sprinkler settings....
As for Harold Greene, he retired, then died two years ago of a cerebral hemorrhage. May his selection of heavenly golf courses and plaid pants be many.
The Master and His Human
Nov. 25, 2002
Some smart humans with pleasant scents and a largely incomprehensible vocabulary have determined that over thousands of years their species, through domestication and interaction, changed the genetics of what would become canines. The scientists, who have only two legs, just reported their serious findings in the journal Science. They believe that humans changed wolves -- rescuing them from a cold forest life of surviving paw to mouth -- by bringing these canny creatures into the warmth of a house as domesticated dogs with their own toys, soft beds and biscuit treats they needn't share.
The Science research suggests it was humans' idea to serve meat in a bowl to former wolves who once had to chase dinner. Now, this retired wildlife sleeps around the house whenever it wants. The scientists say dogs have learned to read human looks, gestures and sounds; even puppies know how to do this from birth.
We can report exclusively here that this news -- considered hilarious in dogdom -- is traversing the globe through bouts of coded barking from one backyard to another. Although dog dialects and accents differ by region, the rough translation of these canine messages is: "It's still working perfectly. They think they're training us!"
Humans' uncanny ability to learn from dogs was, like many important advances, discovered by accident. Legend says that thousands of years ago a portly dog seeking a workout one cold morning delivered a stick to an idle human. Instantly, the human knew the trick. He tossed the stick away. The dog brought it back. The human threw it away. Again and again. Even when the dog fetched a different stick, the human knew to toss it.
Since then, other animals have deciphered human learning patterns. Even illiterate ducks have successfully trained humans frequenting parks. The ducks walk up, ask for bread and tilt their heads, waiting. Well-trained humans know to stop and drop large quantities of bread crumbs.
Training humans requires time -- and patience. Sure, all it took was little puppy licks for humans to learn baby talk. But generations of whimpering passed before humans finally began cloaking cold floors in carpets. Humans encountering each other still don't get the sniffing protocol. And despite centuries of example by all breeds during morning and evening walks, humans still haven't learned where to do their business, though most know now to clean up after the dog.
A growing cadre of conservative canines holds that humans, though adorable when children, are stubborn and quite simply untrainable as adults. According to this orthodox interpretation of the stick-tossing legend, the dog who discovered humans' apparent capacity for learning was not seeking exercise. He was cold in the cave and intended the stick for the fire.Related Articles
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